Interview: Ted Alspach, designer of Suburbia and the One Night series

Ted Alspach, the founder of Bezier Games and the designer of Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, One Night Ultimate Werewolf and many more joins Diagonal Move to discuss game design and publishing.

DM: Thanks you for joining us today, Ted. Please can you tell how you how your journey in the games industry began?

TA: I had been designing games for a long long time, but didn’t take it seriously until about 2005 or so. One of my designs, Seismic, was picked up by Atlas Games. At about that time, I started publishing Age of Steam expansions. Our very first game was Start Player (a card game to determine who goes first). Shortly after that I published the very first Ultimate Werewolf game (now known as the “whitebox” edition), making 800 copies by hand until I manufactured the first “real” edition: Ultimate Werewolf Ultimate Edition. Ultimate Werewolf has the distinction of selling more games each year than the previous year…for the past 14 years!

DM: One Night Ultimate Werewolf has been a big success, spawning a host of other themes, a word game (Werewords) plus associated merchandise. Can you tell us the story behind your involvement with the game and your thoughts on what makes it so popular?

TA: The One Night games have been a very successful series for us. There are two things that have made it successful: The variety of roles combined with easy-to-learn gameplay, and the integration of the app into the game, which provides it with a way to reach gamers who normally wouldn’t touch traditional boardgames.

One Night Bezier Games
Are you the Werewolf? (Photo: Bezier Games)

DM: One Night Ultimate Werewolf and its related games are quite different experiences to the likes of Suburbia or Colony. What design elements contribute to a great party game vs those for a great strategy game and which is the more challenging to design well?

TA: For a party game, there has to be high interaction among the players, and a super short initial rules explanation, and a variety of things to do each game. We address the former by limiting the amount of time players can discuss roles, the second by making most of the rules specific to cards which are then explained by the app, and the latter by including more roles than you can possibly play with in a single game.

For strategy games, it’s about making meaningful decisions that make you feel like you are doing something better (or at least different) than your opponents, and having enough variability that each game will be different than the last. That’s why the information in strategy games we publish is mostly open (except for end game secret goals), and why there are always a lot more tiles/cards/etc. than you can play in a game. Think of all the extra buildings in Suburbia, rooms in Castles, or cards in Colony. Even New York Slice has a large number of Today’s Specials to keep the game fresh.

You don’t need a sense of humour to live here…but it helps. The Castles of Mad King Ludwig

DM: There is a vein of humour running through many of your well-known designs, including some of your more strategic games. How do you think a light-hearted touch enhances the game experience for players?

These are *games* after all, so taking them too seriously doesn’t work for me. I like that players can find fun situations through the various combinations in our games. In Castles, building a kennel next to the meat locker is either very efficient to feed your dogs, or it’s super creepy because of where the meat might be coming from!

DM: Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig are both much loved games. Suburbia has seen a ‘Collectors Edition’ reissue and Castles is soon to receive the same.  As a designer, how does it feel to have created games that have clearly resonated with the board game community?

TA: Some of the best experiences I’ve had are when someone comes up to me at a trade show and tells me that Castles/Suburbia/One Night/Werewords/Silver/etc. is their favorite game. Or that Castles is the game that got their spouse into gaming. Or that the only non-video/mobile game their kids will play is Ultimate Werewolf, and they want to play it all the time. Seeing people having fun playing your games is incredibly rewarding!

Suburbia…old skool editon

DM: Moving to your experiences as CEO of Bezier Games, what do you feel makes a game stand out in a crowded industry? Is it a unique mechanic, distinctive graphic design, a combination of things?

Our tagline for Bezier Games is “The New Classics” because we want every game we publish to be a game that players play years from now. We don’t always achieve that goal, but when we do it’s really exciting.

In order for that to happen, more than anything, the gameplay itself has to be compelling. There might be a component or set of mechanics that’s new and grabs people’s attention, but the gameplay has to be good enough that they’re willing to play the game several times, which is where you start to see more and more people exposed to them, and that results in more sales of those games.

There’s also a huge dose of lucky timing that goes into any game being successful. If you have a game that comes out at the right time, when players are looking for that kind of game, your game ends up doing well, as long as the game itself is a solid game.

Suburbia Collectors
Suburbia: Collectors Edition (Photo: Antony Wyatt)

DM: Board games typically undergo a lengthy development process before publication. Can you provide a publisher’s view on this process?

TA: For us, the number one thing that influences the time it takes is playtesting. We typically playtest games hundreds of times, both internally and externally. After playtests, the game is modified in some way and then more playtesting occurs. This can take months or in some cases, years.

Games evolve over time quite a bit, until one day you simply realize it is finished. Additional playtesting continues at that point to ensure there are no weird edge cases, and that the final art and components work as intended.

DM: In addition to your own games Bezier also publishes other designers’ work (Favor of the Pharaoh, Whistle Mountain). As a publisher what is the one thing you wish aspiring designers, and the game buying public in general, knew about the industry and why?

The amount of influence a publisher has on any game varies significantly. That first game of my mine that was published wasn’t changed at all by the publisher, much to my surprise. They even used the art that I had come up with. Bezier Games tends to rework most aspects of games into something that feels more like a game you could expect from us: we typically add some sort of long term variability, like the Today’s Specials to New York Slice, which makes games more replayable, especially in the short term when you’re excited about a game and playing it a lot.

Designers shouldn’t spend a lot of time or effort on artwork either, because it will almost always be replaced by something that the publisher wants to use. Sometimes that can get in the way of a publisher figuring out if the game is right for them.

Suburbia: Collectors Edition (Photo: Antony Wyatt)

DM: From a publisher’s point of view, is there a game you consider to be the ‘one that got away’?

TA: Anytime I play a game I really like that’s similar to the kinds of games we publish, I always think “what would we have done differently?” and “could we have made this game even better had we published it?”

In 2020, my favorite non-Bezier Games game was The Search for Planet X by a big margin. The gameplay is amazing, and the integration of the app is perfect for a deduction game, which removes the problem with many deduction games of a player giving wrong information accidentally, and wrecking the deductions for the other players as a result. I would have loved to be involved with the publication of that game!

DM: What is next for both yourself and Bezier Games?

TA: This year we have several giant releases: a Collector’s Edition of Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Ultimate Werewolf Extreme, and Maglev Metro!